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Updated: Jun 3, 2019
“What’s past is prologue.” The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
Systemic racism perpetually taints America’s criminal justice system, to the point at which it often seems more criminal than justice. The dynamics of the wrongful execution of Alexander McClay Williams – the youngest person executed in Pennsylvania history – are just as crucial and relevant in today’s legal and political climate as they were when this travesty unfolded 87 years ago.
Before Emmett Till, George Stinney Jr., Kalief Browder, or Trayvon Martin, and an increasingly endless roster of victims of racially motivated murders and crimes, there was Alexander McClay Williams, a learning-challenged black teenager born into poverty in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1914.
It should go without saying there are countless community-minded, ethical, responsible police, prosecutors, and judges. Unfortunately, not all are like that.
The systemic racism that continues to erode the Constitutional protections which are the foundation of our criminal justice system, occurs when crimes are committed under color of law by corrupt police, prosecutors, and judges. By doing so, the concept of equal justice under law is subverted by a legal system obviously skewed by race and socio-economic status, as national statistics clearly attest.
One need only look at recent examples like former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, the first African American district attorney in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, who was indicted on 23 counts of bribery, extortion, and fraud in 2017. Via a plea bargain, Williams agreed to plead guilty to one of the 23 counts he faced. He was disbarred and sentenced to five years in prison.
In August 2015, former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was charged with multiple offenses related to her position as attorney general, including a felony perjury charge, and an array of misdemeanors that included official oppression, obstruction, and related conspiracy charges. In 2016, Kane was convicted of all charges, including two felony perjury charges, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, and sentenced to 10 to 23 months in prison.
“Kids for Cash” scandal snares Pennsylvania judges
However, the most egregious example of judicial misconduct in Pennsylvania is probably the 2008 “kids for cash” scandal in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. In that case, County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael Conahan, and former County President Judge Mark Ciavarella were accused of accepting money in kickbacks in return for imposing harsh sentences on 2,400 juveniles to increase occupancy at for-profit detention centers.
On September 9, 2009, a federal grand jury in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, returned a 48-count indictment against Ciavarella and Conahan including racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, and federal tax violations. In 2011, Ciavarella was convicted on 12 of the 39 counts he was charged with, including racketeering – a crime in which prosecutors said the former judge used children "as pawns to enrich himself." He was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison as a result of his conviction. He is scheduled for release in 2035, when he will be 85 years old. No one is above the law – not even the president judge of a Pennsylvania county court system.
Conahan was sentenced to 17 and a half years in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy. He is scheduled to be release in 2026 when he is 74 years old.
Because the Luzerne County court system had been corrupted, a class action suit was filed by the Juvenile Law Center with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court under the auspices of “the King’s Bench,” a rarely used legal remedy established in 1722.
Legal reformer Larry Krasner gets heat from his peers
Lawrence A. Krasner, the current District Attorney of Philadelphia, took office in took office in January 2018, and promptly initiated criminal justice reforms, and created a Conviction Integrity Unit to review questionable prosecutions.
Prior to his government service, Krasner was a prolific criminal defense and civil rights attorney and public defender who aggressively pursued police misconduct. In his first week in office, Krasner fired 31 prosecutors from the District Attorney's Office, including both junior and career supervisory staff. Up to one-third of the homicide prosecutors in the office were dismissed.
Not surprisingly, Krasner’s ethical and enlightened policies designed to redeem Philadelphia’s criminal justice system has engendered ire and pushback from some police, prosecutors and judges.
The Mysterious Case of Walter Ogrod
One of the most notable of such cases was that of mentally challenged Walter Ogrod, of Northeast Philadelphia. In April 1992, after multiple hours of nonstop, grueling interrogation, Ogrod “confessed” to the murder of four year old Barbara Jean Horn. Ogrod, who initially vehemently denied any involvement of the crime, claimed that police interrogators convinced him that he had committed the crime. This is an interrogation tactic sometimes referred to as “gaslighting.”
In October 1996, Ogrod was convicted of the child’s murder and sentenced to death. The main evidence against Ogrod were the fabricated claims of a jailhouse informant who traded information about a dubious confession he claimed Ogrod had made in jail, for a reduced sentence on a drug charge. But it was later reported by a family member of the informant, that he had crafted his “earwitness” testimony of Ogrod’s reputed jailhouse “confession,” based on newspaper articles he had read and TV reports that he had seen.
In April 2017, a book by author Thomas Lowenstein The Trials of Walter Ogrod, was published. In April 2018, a segment of the documentary series Death Row Stories, produced by CNN, entitled "Snitch Work" aired, focusing on Ogrod's conviction and possible innocence.
In April 2018, Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner stated that Ogrod's conviction will be reviewed. In addition, a district attorney spokesman revealed that prosecutors will no longer try to prevent DNA evidence in the case from being tested, including fingernail scrapings from the victim. Krasner’s predecessors had, reportedly, adamantly refused to allow DNA testing. Why?
Abundant statistical and analytical data is available from public and private institutions such as the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, the comprehensive and authoritative Washington Post database, and the Equal Justice Initiative, which support this contention.
Tip of the legal iceberg
An article dated March 7, 2017, by Juan A. Lozano of the Associated Press, entitled, “Report finds exonerations rose again in the U.S. in 2016,” states the number of exonerations in such cases continues to rise each year with a record high of 166 in 2016 according to the annual report of the National Exonerations Registry. “The number of people exonerated in the U.S. rose again in 2016, with more than half of them involved in cases in which it was later determined no crime occurred.” (The article continues…) “University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, who edits the report, said more exonerations are not a sign the problems that result in false convictions are being resolved.”
“What worries us most ... is people will say, 'Oh, exonerations are way up... We're dealing with this problem,’” Gross said. "But the number of people convicted of crimes they did not commit who are never exonerated is much greater."
“In a companion report, the registry said African-Americans have been disproportionately represented in the number of people exonerated in the U.S. in the past 28 years – making up 50 percent of murder exonerees, 59 percent of sexual assault exonerees and 55 percent of drug crime exonerees.” These statistics are even more stark when considering that blacks make up only 12.85% of the total population of the United States.
As of this blog post, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 there have been 2,420 exonerations in the U.S., for a total loss of 21,292 years of freedom. they believe is just the tip of the iceberg. Over 2,430 prisoners have been proven innocent since 1989. (http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/Exonerations-in-the-United-States-Map.aspx)
These statistics suggest the problem is not “the law,” per se, since laws can be passed, repealed, or modified to fit ever-changing situations or complexities not previously encountered; but rather, how the criminal justice and legal systems are selectively administered. Too often, these agencies appear to operate on a self-rewarding system based heavily on results rather than justice, demonstrating punitive preferences skewed toward the letter, versus the spirit, of the law.
Police torture gets short-lived laurels
One police officer who boasted a remarkable arrest and conviction rate was convicted felon and disgraced former police detective and commander John Burge in Chicago, who was convicted of torturing some 200 criminal suspects between 1972 and 1991 into false and coerced confessions using “methodical” and “systematic” torture including beatings, burnings, suffocation with plastic bags, electric shocks to the genitals, putting a gun in suspects’ mouths, and other forms of coercion causing serious physical and mental injury.
Burge was sentenced to a paltry 4 ½ years in prison for lying under oath about police torture and received time off for good behavior. In 2007 the City of Chicago settled a $19.8 million dollar suit for dozens of victims of Burge’s police torture squad.
In 2003, then Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned four of 10 death row victims who say they were tortured by Burge's police officers. Hundreds of other cases were reviewed and a number of convictions were tossed.
Conspiracy of silence
Police officers who achieve superior numbers of arrests are customarily promoted to higher positions of rank and authority, while assistant district attorneys who achieve higher numbers of convictions may eventually become district attorneys, magistrates, or judges – whether appointed or elected to public office.
In such cases, few seem willing to admit when errors or injustices may have occurred, perhaps due to professional pride or fear of being seen as a sign of weakness, rather than of strength and integrity. When investigations or convictions are scrutinized on legitimate grounds some officials view questioners with anger or contempt. They seem to forget that government power is derived from the people.
Economic status also plays a highly influential role in criminal justice. Some can afford to engage excellent private attorneys and to make bail. However, many people cannot. That can be the difference between freedom and incarceration, or life and death.
The tragedy of Kalief Browder
According to a June 8, 2015 article in The New York Times, entitled “Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide,” by Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip, African American “Kalief Browder was sent to Rikers Island when he was 16 years old, accused of stealing a backpack. Though he never stood trial or was found guilty of any crime, he spent three years at the New York City jail complex, nearly two of them in solitary confinement.”
Further, “In jail he had tried to commit suicide several times. He told Ms. Gonnerman (Jennifer Gonnerman of The New Yorker, who first wrote about Browder in 2014) that he was repeatedly beaten by correction officers and fellow inmates, but she said she did not realize the extent of the abuse until she watched security videos showing him being knocked to the ground by an officer and attacked by inmates.”
The authors added, “Throughout, he insisted on his innocence, refusing several offers from prosecutors to take a plea deal, including one that would have allowed him to be released immediately. Ultimately, prosecutors dropped the charges. In the course of the three years Mr. Browder was being held, they lost contact with their only witness.” It was this witness who had claimed to police that Browder had robbed him. When Browder was searched immediately afterward, nothing was found on him.
The article continues: “For a while, it appeared Mr. Browder was putting his life back together. He earned a high school equivalency diploma and started community college. But he continued to struggle with life after Rikers. On Saturday, he committed suicide at his parents’ home in the Bronx. Jennifer Gonnerman, the author of the article in The New Yorker, said in an interview on Monday that it appeared he was never able to recover from the years he spent locked alone in a cell for 23 hours a day.”
In her original October 6, 2014 article in The New Yorker, entitled, Before the Law, Gonnerman wrote: “Browder had already had a few run-ins with the police…” In a case where he was alleged to have participated in a “joy ride” in a stolen truck, “The judge gave him probation and ‘youthful offender’ status, which insured that he wouldn’t have a criminal record.”
Highlighting part of the problem with the judicial system in some places like New York, Gonnerman wrote: “There are not nearly enough judges and court staff to handle the workload; in 2010, Browder’s case was one of five thousand six hundred and ninety-five felonies that the Bronx District Attorney’s office prosecuted.”
Budgetary limits on state governments adversely impact criminal justice and judicial systems, however, so does political gridlock on a national scale. According to the website, www.uscourts.gov, as of April 13, 2017, there were 126 current judicial vacancies, with only one nominee pending. The deliberate and unprecedented stalemate manipulated by members of the U.S. Senate in delaying the appointment of a Supreme Court justice demonstrates perfectly how politics undermines judicial process. Political intransigence contributes to heavier workloads and unnecessary burdens to the country’s judiciary, already stretched far beyond reasonable limits.
One law for the rich, but another for the poor
Kalief Browder’s case stands in stark contrast to white 16 year old Ethan Couch. According to an article published December 17, 2013, in Slate magazine entitled, “There’s No Defense for Affluenza” by Robin S. Rosenberg, the author reports on “…Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old who drove while drunk and killed four people and injured two others. Couch had three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood (that’s the limit for adults—minors shouldn’t have any alcohol in their blood). He also had Valium and some THC in his system. Stolen beer was in the pickup truck he was driving, which was owned by Couch’s father’s company.
When Couch drove too fast, his companions asked him to slow down; instead, he sped up. Rather than the 20 years of jail time the prosecution asked for, Texas Judge Jean Boyd gave Couch absolutely no jail time and instead sentenced him to 10 years of probation and time in a long-term treatment facility.
That facility costs $450,000 per year, paid for by Couch’s wealthy parents. Among other amenities, it offers equine therapy and organic food choices.” In 2015, Couch violated probation, fled to Mexico with his mother, was caught, deported, and sentenced to 2 years in jail.
“During the sentencing phase of the trial, the defense argued that Couch shouldn’t be held as responsible as he might be because his parents were so permissive in their style of child rearing that Couch did not experience socially appropriate consequences for his socially inappropriate behavior. The defense’s argument for a lenient sentence is summed up in the word affluenza.”
When money talks, a prisoner walks
One final noteworthy example of how wealth impacts criminal justice is offered to readers. According to an April 6, 2017 Associated Press article entitled, “Murder suspect posts $35M bail upsetting victim’s family,” by Paul Elias: “A Chinese real estate scion charged with orchestrating the murder of her children's father was released from a San Francisco Bay Area jail Thursday after posting a $35 million bail, a highly unusual financial transaction that startled and angered the victim's family and friends.”
The article adds: “Tiffany Li will remain out of custody after family, friends, and her mother's business associates raised $4 million cash and pledged Bay Area properties worth a combined $62 million to post her bail. Courts require double the bail amount when property is pledged instead of cash.” Apparently, socio-economic status and access to wealth hold more sway with the criminal justice and judicial systems than race or ethnicity. How do impoverished young defendants of color like Kalief Browder truly pose a greater risk to society than Ethan Couch or Tiffany Li?
The poor believe in having their "day in court," and pay dearly for it.
I did not set out to conduct a 30-year study of the case of Alexander McClay Williams. But by employing the research skills I acquired during a rigorous doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, I gathered the data as carefully and methodically as possible. While I, admittedly, am not an attorney and have had no formal study in the field of law, the genealogical skills I developed over a period of decades proved invaluable to me, in terms of gathering and examining vital documents such as birth, death, marriage, and divorce records that were critical to my research.